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Lesson Plan Women in the Civil War: Ladies, Contraband and Spies

This lesson uses primary sources - diaries, letters, and photographs - to explore the experiences of women in the Civil War. By looking at a series of document galleries, the perspectives of slave women, plantation mistresses, female spies, and Union women emerge. Ultimately, students will understand the human consequences of this war for women.


Students will be able to:

  • develop skills in seeing and understanding visual and print sources;
  • clearn to analyze and to draw inferences from sources; and
  • develop understanding of how the Civil War affected the lives of women.

Time Required

One week

Lesson Preparation



Lesson Procedure

Activity One

  1. Spread out document sets in classroom or direct students to view the resource galleries. Instruct students to look at sets and form groups based on personal interest.
  2. Discuss assessment expectations and assignment goals.
  3. Students analyze the documents, recording their thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Before the students begin, select questions from the teacher's guide Analyzing Primary Sources to focus the group work, and select additional questions to focus and prompt discussion of their analysis.

Activity Two

  1. Groups will create a brief oral presentation of what the group has deduced from analyzing the documents. Possible points to include in the presentations:
    1. Summarize the content of each of the documents of photographs.
    2. Comment on women's place, role or voice in the document.
    3. Describe how the women were involved in the Civil War. What was the nature of their involvement?
    4. How is a woman's role different or similar to the role of a soldier in the Civil War?
    5. What opportunities for political or personal action exist for the women you studied?
  2. Students present their completed project to classmates in a brief oral presentation with visual support.
  3. Following the presentations, lead a class discussion centered around the generalizations that one can make about women's experiences in the Civil War.

Activity Three

  1. Brainstorm what a textbook entry on women in the Civil War would include and how primary sources differ from textbook entries.
  2. Point out to the students that textbooks present only a small fraction of the knowledge available on a given subject, from a textbook author's point of view.
  3. Instruct students to write a 500 word textbook entry on women in the Civil War. They may consult their own textbook for a model.
  4. Writing the textbook entry forces students to try to synthesize the information they have analyzed and heard from other students and to condense it into a cohesive entry. They may feel the frustration that editors feel as they try to fit their knowledge into short, readable paragraphs.

Lesson Evaluation

Assess the presentation, textbook entry, and primary source analysis according to criteria you specify or according to criteria generated with the class.


Susan Allen & Mary Rockwell